In the autumn of 1347, twelve ships carrying an unusual cargo docked at Sicily’s Messina harbor from Genoa. These trading ships contained both sick and dying sailors who showed signs of being ravaged by an unusual malady the likes of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of this disease was in odd purulent swellings in the armpits and groins of victims who later succumbed to the ailment. This single event marked the arrival of the bubonic plague on European shores, thus marking the start of an epidemic which would later claim close to one-third of the continent’s total population. Aptly named the Black Death by subsequent historians, the plague had far reaching consequences for society during the Late Middle Ages. The mysterious nature of this dreadful disease soon transformed people’s attitudes and the manner in which they reacted to its accompanying effects. Although Christians are traditionally known for adhering to tenets of scripture which compel them to care for the sick and needy, it became increasingly difficult to follow this edict during the epoch of the Black Death.
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The plague distorted the initial societal order in Europe and transformed relations. Since everyone feared this highly dreaded contagion, contact was reduced to the bare minimum. Some even resorted to establishing isolated communes in the far reaches of countryside in Naples in the hope that they would avoid contracting the disease. Furthermore, the disease also affected the fabric of European society built on friendly relations with neighbors while remaining within a closely knit family unit. The Black Death essentially distorted this order. It was now common for individuals to dessert ailing friends and family during their time of need. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), an Italian poet who lived through this period, left an unnerving account of the depredations of this debilitating disease. An excerpt from Decameron, one of his most popular works, delivers a bleak overview of this stark reality. Boccaccio describes post-apocalyptic scenes where Christians openly shunned the sick and all their possessions and, instead, chose to be self-centered. These unexpected changes in attitude were evident across all strata of society with servants choosing to take advantage of the prevailing situation and proceeding to charge exorbitant charges to care for the infected rich. This seemingly mundane act went against scriptural proclamations. Mathew 10:8 urges Christians to care for the sick and cleanse the lepers without expecting pay.
The Black Death also transformed attitudes with regard to the duty of each individual in society and their subsequent role in respecting integral rites. The disease revealed a side of humanity which was, hitherto, unknown to many Europeans. For instance, the caring and charitable nature Florentines ceased to exist, with many opting for isolation. The sick eventually found themselves in a seemingly insurmountable predicament since few obeyed the law of charity outlined in the Bible, leaving them to fend for themselves. This change in attitude also extended to the family level where people avoided their kin and or offering any form of aid: “The terror was such that brother even fled from brother, wife from husband, nay, the parent from her own child”. Within a relatively short period, the streets of major hubs were filled with the dead and dying, now having to accept fate and grapple with the inevitable outcome. The digging of trenches as graves for the dead also became common during this period. Burial rites soon became a thing of the past with many failing to provide this essential ritual to the dead. This was against biblical view since Ecclesiastes 6:3 is categorical in underscoring the importance of a proper burial within society.
The rapid proliferation of the Black Death and its sheer devastation threatened the very core of medicine and religious beliefs in Europe. The disease wreaked havoc through the European hinterland and with no end in sight. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that the disease confounded physicians who expressed poor medical knowledge of its origin, medium of spread and how best to contain it. Additionally, it also created a scenario where physicians out rightly avoided carrying out their fiat to serve the sick for fear of risking their own lives during this delicate process. The Christian faith was also threatened by the plague since no amount of prayer or fasting could protect them from its depredations. It soon became apparent to many that the disease was incurable, with some even viewing it as a punishment from God for disregarding biblical pronouncements. Many resorted to a temperate life, entering a self-imposed quarantine to lead a temperate life while acknowledging the suffering of others. While this is commendable, it was still debauched since such individuals failed to participate directly in helping those in need.
In conclusion, the Black Death represents an austere moment in history during which humanity was pushed to its very limits. The plague disturbed societal order, transformed relations, and attitudes in society. It is starkly similar to the current Coronavirus disease (COVID 19) currently plaguing the world and a reminder of ones Christian duty to support efforts to care for the sick.
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